Review: Stellaris: Synthetic Dawn21 Sep 2017 2
Review: Stellaris: Synthetic Dawn
Released 21 Sep 2017
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t very enthusiastic for Synthetic Dawn. Being exceedingly human-friendly and coming off Utopia’s mega structures and ascension perks, the idea of creating a machine race felt rather... unexciting. After spending a whole week with the expansion, however, and having a few of the best play sessions of recent times, I began to see the appeal inherent to AI civilizations. Following an amazing campaign, complete with multiple megastructures and unchallenged dominance across the stars -- in Ironman mode, no less -- turns out it isn’t such a bad idea to expand as a robotic consciousness and create an AI-led network that spans the entire galaxy.
Stellaris’ latest story pack, Synthetic Dawn, is all about non-organics and their rise to power, from space-faring origin to galactic domination. The main feature of this story pack is the new player-created Machine Empires: Artificial Intelligence societies made of robots with a single consciousness. Like Hive Minds, these cultures are not affected by happiness and are made up of immortal leaders, creating a very different experience from the politics-laden organic playthroughs of the base game.
When creating your race, you get access to a dozen new robotic portraits, including synthetic variations of each biological race already in the game. Machines races have their own traits, civics, and name lists, allowing you to customise your empire, and the game has three big ones that shape the playground in major ways.
First, we have the Determined Exterminators, Stellaris’ equivalent of the Geth from Mass Effect or Terminator’s Skynet: a rogue defense system that turned on its creators when they tried to shut it down, these guys are unable to conduct diplomacy with organic empires and forced to purge conquered organic Pops, but can freely coexist and cooperate with other synthetic civilizations. This is obviously a very war-centered path, which isn’t a strongly recommended playstyle given how atrocious Stellaris’ war mechanic is right now.
Next are the Driven Assimilators -- basically Star Trek’s Borg -- seeking to expand their knowledge and bridge the gap between the organic and synthetic, empires with this civic start the game with their creator species present on the planet as assimilated cyborgs. Expansion is done by using the “Assimilation” citizenship type to integrate conquered organic civilisations, making them rightfully feared and despised by most of the galaxy. It also leads to war quite a bit, as the AI tends to hate them and rally against you -- once more forcing players to engage in annoyingly unbalanced combat.
Last but not least, we have the novel Rogue Servitors -- best encapsulated as those little white robots taking care of humans in Wall-E. Robotic servants built by an organic species to make their own lives easier, they eventually assume full control of their creators' civilisation and become the de facto rulers of their society. Servitors start the game with their creator species present on the planet as a Bio-Trophy, and can integrate conquered organic Pops by granting them this citizenship status. Those bio Pops don’t produce anything, but are crucial to a new mechanic called Servitor Morale -- happiness for robots. The Servitors' prime directive is to protect and care for organic beings, so the higher the percentage of Bio-Trophies in the population, the higher the Servitor Morale and the direct boost to influence gain.
Those three unique civis can significantly change your interactions with the game, but the fun part is that they are not forced upon you, allowing you to play a freeform machine race without established engagement parameters. You can even design a machine empire with normal human portraits if you so choose, creating a creepy race of cybernetic human lookalikes. Unfortunately, machines *must* use the Gestalt consciousness ethic, preventing them from engaging in authoritarian or democratic styles of government -- so if you had any dreams of making a society of Datas or C-3POs and R2-D2s, you better leave it at the door.
Once the game starts, it tends to progress rather smoothly in terms of internal strife. Without food, happiness, or factions preoccupations, synthetic races are free to focus entirely on energy and minerals production and keep their individuals alive while extending the reach of their empire. Those happen via power plants and mineral stations like all other races, but robots do have new pieces of textual lore and graphics to account for their different nature.
Similarly, technologies, anomalies, and story events are all rewritten to make sense within the new cybernetic context, and a few pieces of technology are even brand new. The new lore is interesting and just as well written as the rest of the game, but the utter lack of unique meaningful AI events feels a bit disappointing -- no mention of viruses, overclock, or production line mishaps that kill half a planet, making the big scale gameplay feel exactly the same as any other species.
Like every major piece of content, Paradox is giving out a sizeable free patch along with its paid expansion. Among literally hundreds of very important changes, the most relevant to this DLC review are those that affect the galaxy at large, such that Synth AIs can rebel against bad masters and Fallen Empires now decay once they get big enough, allowing their own subjects (including you, if you’re unlucky) to rebel against their rule and overthrow them. When war inevitably breaks out, small changes to combat correct a few of the most glaring issues like corvette spams and the awful overkill of wasted missiles, but the overall battle mechanics remain untouched -- still unbalanced and significantly unintuitive, it remains an awful proposition.
As a result, my most fun playthrough was with a custom free-willed Machine Empire I called the Guardians. Focused on protecting smaller races and observing primitive civilisations, I focused on a single planet for about 50 years, accruing Ascension perks and technology before colonising new planets. That led to an extremely uneventful but very enjoyable two dozen hours which, save for losing entire 6k fleets to 1.9k pirates, felt pretty enthralling.
In the end, Paradox delivers once more. I was extremely surprised by how enjoyable it is playing a machine empire, and I can definitely recommend this expansion it to anyone who has even a passive interest in making a robot race. While there are no robotic ship or city types, the unique worries and gameplay mechanics of synthetic races are detached from the core experience enough to stand on its own, and all the little improvements go a long way to making Stellaris the game it should be.